By the early 1990’s, Tony Scott had cemented his status as Hollywood’s premier action director. He became the brawn, as opposed to his brother Ridley’s brain. It was inevitable that, at some point, he would cross paths with another burgeoning writer/director well-versed in the genre, Shane Black (of LETHAL WEAPON fame). The combination of Scott’s affinity for high octane action, and Black’s acerbic, dark humor resulted in 1991’s THE LAST BOY SCOUT.
The film is the quintessential 90’s action movie, laced with the cynicism prevalent throughout much of that decade. As produced by Joel Silver, it carries a Bruckheimer/Simpson-lite aesthetic that was the stock-and-trade of late 80’s/early 90’s mainstream filmmaking. Bruce Willis stars as a burnt-out detective who’s so burnt-out, he can’t even muster up the slightest sense of indignation when he catches his wife cheating. Damon Wayans, at the height of his IN LIVING COLOR fame, is a disgraced NFL player who teams up with Willis when they uncover a conspiracy involving professional sports that extends all the way to the government.
Willis doesn’t show a lot of range in his bread-and-butter action hero roles, mumbling his way through his performance and carrying a large chip on his shoulder. Wayans is grounded enough that his comedic sensibilities don’t ring as cartoonish or out of place with the tone of the piece. Despite their grizzled, devil-may-care attitudes, they clearly relish the chance to chew on writer (and Executive Producer) Shane Black’s witty dialogue.
The supporting roles provide a good amount of the comedic relief, while still letting them be taken seriously. Halle Berry shows up, years before she ever became a superstar, as Wayans’ stripper girlfriend– whose murder kicks the entire plot into gear. Also making a brief appearance is the ever-likeable Bruce McGill, on loan from Michael Mann.
This was my first time seeing THE LAST BOY SCOUT, so its outdated-ness was immediately apparent to me. Part of the problem of being a filmmaker who focuses on being trendy and stylish is that his/her work more often than not looks ridiculous twenty, even ten years on. Compared to Scott’s other pieces, however, this film stands up mostly well. Scott re-teams with DAYS OF THUNDER cinematographer Ward Russell to recreate his signature filmic look. Shot on 35mm in the Anamorphic ratio, the film image is high in contrast and deals heavily in warm, orange tones. The presence of neon and blown-out light filtering through venetian blinds reassures us that we are in Scott’s capable hands. A thin haze of smoke seems to permeate each scene, even in the interiors– perhaps as a nod to the smog-choked environs of Los Angeles, the film’s setting.
Michael Kamen provides the score, despite the rumor that he apparently hated the film when he first saw it. The IMDB trivia section cites Kamen’s involvement as a favor to Silver and Willis. As a result, it’s pretty unremarkable and utilitarian. However, the film’s sound mix should be noted for being incredibly immersive.
The film is pure pop escapism– it’s shot as a big, loud, and brassy moviegoing experience. The action is actually entertaining and unpredictably funny, despite its brutality. For instance, the film opens up during a football game amidst heavy rain (classic Scott move, by the way). As a player runs with the ball towards the goal, he whips out a concealed gun and proceeds to coldly shoot anyone who tries to tackle him. It’s so absurd I couldn’t help but laugh, but I can’t also deny that the sheer audacity on display shocked me a little bit. It’s the kind of sequence that could only work in the opening of a film, and not at any other point. (Disguising a gun within a hand puppet is also a standout sequence.)
I was also surprised at how morally murky the protagonists were. They had no qualms about casually murdering their opponents and leaving a messy crime scene. Some of these murders are even committed, albeit in quasi self-defense, in broad daylight with a huge number of witnesses. How did they not inflict the full wrath of the LAPD upon themselves? It’s utterly unbelievable, but mainstream Hollywood films of the 90’s didn’t care about believability. It was about tough guys, tougher villains, and explosions. We still haven’t broken out of the cycle yet, and I don’t expect that we will anytime soon.
In terms of Scott’s development, he’s working well within his wheelhouse, and doesn’t seem to be really challenging himself here. I wouldn’t say that it’s strictly a grab for a big payday, but he’s definitely treading water. THE LAST BOY SCOUT was a huge hit at the box office, so in that regards, it boosted him ever higher into the echelon of Hollywood’s most bankable directors.
THE LAST BOY SCOUT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Warner Bros, albeit as a double feature with another Willis vehicle, LAST MAN STANDING (1996).